The 12 Best Drift Cars Of All Time

Sep 30, 2020

Category: Rides

While it’s by no means the fastest way of going around a race track or getting through a corner, few, if any behind-the-wheel activities compare to the overall fun, enjoyment, and sheer exhilaration of drifting. Every aspect of the tire-smoking, high-revving motorsport discipline is a pure delight to the senses. This controlled form of chaos can be achieved in the lion’s share of stock production cars, however, there are undoubtedly a handful of models that are celebrated for their distinct ability to break traction and get sideways in the corners.

While they may have grown a little long in the tooth in terms of mechanics or technology, these cars possess a myriad of features that collectively afford them a coveted status in the drift community. To help shine a light on this space, we’ve compiled this list of the best drift cars of all time and will examine why each of these dozen models lends themselves to sliding, as well as the common elements that enhance a car’s willingness to be coaxed into oversteer.

The Ingredients For Getting Sideways

What Qualities Make For A Good Drift Car?

As previously mentioned, almost any car can drift—at least with the right driver behind the wheel. Having said that, there are numerous traits that objectively increase a vehicle’s ability to back it into a corner. Below, we’ll delve into the primary qualities that better enable a car to drift, and why each of the said qualities bolsters a car’s drifting prowess.

Engine & Transmission Layout: This is almost certainly the most pivotal aspect of a car to determine its driftability. Ideally, a drift car will feature a front-mounted engine feeding power through a rear-wheel-drive configuration. With power sent to the rear wheels, enough torque can be provided for the tires to break traction and continue spinning. By having the engine positioned in the front of the car, there’s much less weight pressing down on the rear end, similarly bolstering the car’s back wheel’s ability to overcome the tires’ grip.

Emergency Brake: While plenty of high-schoolers have perfected the art of engaging drifts with a foot-activated emergency brake while simultaneously holding the brake release with one hand, a hydraulic hand-brake is unquestionably the best option for drifting. Drifts can be achieved through a variety of methods other than using the e-brake, though the handbrake is objectively a crucial component of a drift car.

Transmission Type: Automatics can be used to drift, though a manual transmission arms the driver with another aspect of control of how power is delivered, such as the ability to down-shift or to dump the clutch upon corner entry. Furthermore, clutch-less paddle-shifter models don’t afford the added level of control that a stick-shift does.

Differential: Because you won’t be finding any models with welded rear differentials on the showroom floor or at your local dealership, the next best thing is undoubtedly a vehicle with a limited-slip differential as, unlike open differentials, limited-slip diffs guarantee that—at least some—torque will always be sent to both rear wheels.

Steering Setup: Though power steering has pretty much become the status quo in today’s automotive industry, the modern amenity lacks the same tactile sensation and feedback that’s offered by a hydraulic steering setup. The supplementary feedback is of tremendous importance with steering obviously being such a pivotal part of drifting. Steering angle is also of some importance, as a car with more steering angle will have a wider range of movement, the ability to continue controlling a slide at more extreme angles and to better regain control or correct a turn.

Chassis & Suspension: This area can be tricky to delve into without pretty immediately getting well into the weeds, but in general, a car with a stiffer, more sport, or performance-oriented chassis and suspension setup will better lend itself to drifting and will generally help to mitigate body roll.

Center Of Gravity: A car with a low center of gravity will obviously be far more conducive to drifting than a pickup, SUV, or any other car with a tall ride height and ground clearance. Fortunately, models that tend to boast a low center of gravity, and equally short ride heights, often come paired with cars equipped with tighter, more track-focused suspension and chassis setups.

Power-To-Weight Ratio: Even with a proper front-engined, rear-wheel drive, manual transmission model, a car’s ability to drift ultimately boils down to the back wheel’s ability to overpower the traction being afforded by the tires, and a considerable amount of that traction comes from the car’s weight bearing down on said tires. Therefore, the less weight placed on the tires, the better a car’s ability to drift. This is why a high power-to-weight ratio (or PWR) plays such an enormous role in whether or not a car lends itself to the sport of drifting.

BMW M3 (E36)

Europe’s most popular drift car by a fairly wide margin, BMW’s 1990’s era E36 models all make for stellar drift cars, though in their stock form, the top-spec M3 is undoubtedly the most capable of the lot. A 3.0L (later 3.2L) straight-six provides more than enough oomph to keep the tires spinning through corners, while other elements such as a limited-slip diff, 50/50 weight distribution, and a fantastic five-speed manual transmission all help the machine to be that much more competent of a drifter. Despite several generations having passed–which included the addition of a forced induction powertrain and numerous substantial facelifts amongst a slew of other noteworthy tweaks—the E36 remains one of, if not the best option for drifting, representing the perfect combination of solid contemporary German engineering and old-school analog control.

Ford Focus RS

Backed by Ford’s legendary RS racing pedigree and famously utilized by celebrity driver, Ken Block, the Focus RS is a tire-eating production model that’s kicked along by a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-banger that puts down a cool 350hp and 350ft-lbs of torque. Rather than the rear-wheel-drive setup found on most drift cars, the RS-spec Focus utilizes a torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive configuration, that happens to come straight from the factory with a dedicated “drift mode.” Bestowed with carbon fiber door handles, turbo boost gauge housing, and handbrake lever, the interior of the Focus RS also gets leather Recaro race seats that provide a more planted option than most stock chairs. Sadly, due to ever-tightening European emissions regulations, the Focus RS is no longer in production, though fortunately there’s no shortage of clean examples available on the second-hand market.

Ford Mustang

Japanese models tend to receive a lot of attention in the drift world thanks to their relatively widespread availability and affordable pricing, generally easy-to-tune nature, and overall potency in stock form, though it’s hard to deny that Ford’s Mustang doesn’t also tick these same boxes. Even in its least powerful specs, the model still features a decently capable engine mounted up, sending power through a limited-slip rear diff, though the manufacturer offers powertrains as significant as 5.0L V8. Pretty much every generation of Mustang from the last 40 or so years, albeit some pretty major strides were made in terms of chassis and suspension development after the Fox-body era. The immense popularity of practically every generation of Mustang has also given way to an enormous—and competitively priced—aftermarket sector, making these modern American muscle cars that much more ideal for tuning and/or drifting.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

Since its debut in 1989, the Mazda Miata has stood as one of the all-time most popular tuner cars. They’re easy to work on, exhibit solid handling, and weigh practically nothing, tipping the scales at around one-ton. Sporting an extremely low center of gravity, the Miata’s svelte nature and rear-wheel-drive setup allow even relatively meager powertrains—such as the MX5’s 138hp 1.8L four-cylinder configuration—to send the Miata into corners with the rear wheels spinning. The addition of a forced induction system can also hugely further capitalize on the car’s lightweight. Quite possibly its biggest strength, however, is how wildly affordable it is, with used examples routinely going for as little as a couple of grand. The wheelbase on the Miata is admittedly on the shorter-end of what you’d want in the ideal drift car, though not to the extent that it mitigates the model’s ability to slide.

Mazda RX-7

If you can’t bring yourself to look past the Miata’s “quirky” appearance, another fantastic option from Mazda is the Japanese brand’s beloved RX-7. While the earliest iteration of the RX-7 was naturally-aspirated, the later generations of the rotary engines featured twin-sequential turbochargers that—thanks to the mill’s displacement—could spool its turbos up to operating speeds with incredible efficiency The use of the Wankel lumps also gave the RX-7 a wide powerband brimming with tractable oomph all the way to the rev ceiling. The final (8th) generation of this model undoubtedly received the most contemporary amenities and mechanics, though used specimens now fetch pretty substantial amounts of cash, making the earlier gens the clear choice for anyone on a budget. The widespread use of the RX-7 amongst pro-level drivers should also speak volumes about its overall performance prowess—drifting very much included.

Nissan 240SX

While every example on this list has been heavily utilized by drift communities since the subculture’s inception, no one single model is quite as popular as Nissan’s 240SX. Pretty much everything about this car lends itself to not only drifting but also to aftermarket upgrades and modifications. The engine bay housing the car’s 2.4L four is incredibly spacious, providing plenty of room to work or access parts, while also affording the ability to shoehorn forced induction systems or larger powertrains under the hood with relative ease. It’s mid-150hp-ish output coupled with its sub-3,000lb curb weight allow the 240SX to go toe-to-toe with markedly more powerful models.If you still aren’t sold on the 240SX, look no further than the world of Formula Drift, in which the Japanese four-banger has consistently been a go-to model for the series’ pro-level drivers.

Nissan 350Z

An evolution of the mighty Z dating back to the Datsun era, Nissan’s 350Z has been one of the most popular performance cars since its release in the early 2000s. One of the predecessors to the 240SX, the 350Z’s 3.5L V6, and overall lightweight afford the car a power-to-weight ratio that makes for a stellar drift machine. The newer, more advanced frame and suspension setup on the 350Z also affords it a more stable and planted ride with less roll, while the low ride height and ground clearance further enhance the 350Z’s driftability. Its systems are more contemporary than some of the other entries on this list, though at its core the 350Z is still a classic front-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car helmed via a manual transmission. Outwardly, the car also boasts an unmistakably sporty appearance, even in its completely stock form.

Nissan Skyline

A quintessential Japanese sports coupe, the Skyline is one of the most iconic tuner cars in history, with a lineage that dates back to the Datsun Z cars and continues to this day through the Japanese marque’s GT-R supercar. And, while it’s hard to go wrong with any generation of the Skyline, the mid-to-late ‘90s era R33 GTS-T clearly stands out from the rest, with a 2.5L inline-six paired with a turbocharger and five-speed manual transmission that was good for around 280hp right out of the box, though could also be massaged to squeeze out far more. The cult status of the Skyline—coupled with it not always receiving the warmest reception from lawmakers in certain Western governments—has resulted in fairly exorbitant prices on the used market. Even several decades after its release, the Skyline still performs incredibly well by today’s standards, especially when competing on a drift course.

Lexus IS300

Known as the “Altezza” in its native Japanese market, the Lexus IS300 was a fairly groundbreaking model upon its release around the turn of the millennium, combining the performance of traditional Japanese tuner cars with the comfort and luxury of high-end German vehicles to yield one of the most desirable cars of the decade. Big sibling to the IS200, the Western market’s IS300 was developed under the watchful eye of Nobuaki Katayama, who was also responsible for the technical development of other legendary drift platforms such as the AE86. And, while the IS300 did weigh-in at almost 3,300lbs at the curb, the car’s 3.0L straight-six and its 215hp and 218ft-lbs of torque were more than sufficient for the 300’s rear wheels to break traction. Despite the premium nature of the car, used specimens can be had for as little as $5,000 or $6,000.

Lexus SC400

The Lexus SC400 is another thoroughly potent Japanese coupe that ticks just about every box one would want from a drift car. Though a tad on the heavy side, it’s a rear-wheel-drive vehicle powered by a massive front-mounted 4.3L V8 that generates almost 300hp. All this adds up to a car with a serious propensity for stepping out the rear end, that can be found on the used market for as little as a couple of grand. Even clean examples can be had for around the $5,000 mark. The SC’s powerful engine is backed by a modern chassis and suspension setup, with a low ride height and tight springs that perfectly lend themselves to track-use. And, just like with the IS300, the interior of the SC is markedly more plush and refined than the vast majority of other entries on this list, making it a much more sensible option for those that plan on daily driving the thing.

Toyota AE86

The AE86 is something of the archetypal drift car, with the legendary Toyota being owed some credit for spawning the modern drift scene. Famously featured in Initial D, the AE86 featured a rigid frame housing a front-mounted, naturally-aspirated 4A-GE inline-four that fed almost 130hp to the limited-slip diff-equipped rear-wheel-drive setup. And while that number might not sound too impressive on its own, when viewed alongside the iconic car’s roughly one-ton weight, it’s not hard to see why the AE86 was such a pivotal precursor to the modern drift scene. It’s pop-up headlights and boxy, wedge-shaped design also afford the AE86 a unique, unapologetically 1980s flavor and charm. Unfortunately, between its bonafide cult status and immense rarity—especially in the North American market where only 4,000 units were sold, badged as the “Corolla Sport GT-S”—the AE86 specimens now fetch a pretty enormous amount on the used market, meaning owning a genuine AE86 example is typically reserved for an affluent few.

Toyota Supra

Originally an offshoot of the Japanese brand’s Celica range, the first-generation of the Supra hit the market in 1978, though it wasn’t until 1993 that the fourth-gen, A80 variant debuted, ditching the boxy and angular bodywork for a smoother, more modern, rounded design that’s since taken on a cult status. At the heart of the machine was a 3.0L inline-six—affectionately referred to as “Japan’s take on the Chevy Big Block—that was rated at up to 320hp, at least in turbocharged form. With that said, it’s not uncommon to see Supra examples that have been tuned to put down 1,000 or more horsepower. Just like with the AE86 that came before it, the fourth-generation Supra has increasingly become a coveted collector’s vehicle, and as such now commands a pretty hefty amount on the used market.

The 20 Best Tuner-Friendly Cars Of All Time

Still haven’t gotten your fix of super streetable production models? Then be sure to cruise on over to our guide to the best tuner cars for a look at some of the most mod-friendly rides in recent history.

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